I can't quite remember what I expected to find upon entering New Orleans, but whatever it was, all my expectations were exceeded by NOLA and all its glory. New Orleans is a magical place. It's a city SO rich in its own unique culture and vibe. It is self-aware and doesn't lack the confidence that accompanies an understanding of itself. I fell in love. No doubt about it. As we drove away from the city, I had a lump in my throat; I didn't want to leave. I felt not only pulled to the flavor and warmth of the city, but also the great call for help.
NOLA is still hurting and has some very visible wounds. As soon as we landed in Louisiana this was clear. By the week's end I found myself repeatedly having to remind myself that this is America, "Land of Plenty". As we toured the Lower Ninth Ward (the poorest and one of the most devastated areas of the city) I felt like we were driving through a post-war zone. Hurricane Katrina kicked these people when they were down and their own country let them down before, during, and after.
The wonderful group of informed, enthusiastic, and fun-lovin' people helped to make it a good time right off the bat. Our first weekend there we were able to get situated and see the sites- the French Quarter, Garden District, etc. These areas were virtually unharmed by Katrina, thanks to being on higher ground. New Orleans has a lot of rich and a lot of poor, but not a whole lot of middle-class (something the rest of the country seems to be heading towards).
So…what did we do? Well, we were assigned to work on the home of a woman named Dora in the Upper 9th Ward. The home was so badly damaged from the storm that it actually should have been demolished, but after the owner had invested in a new roof, the South Louisiana Presbytery and their grouchy teddy bear named Leroy decided to take on the project. The home had walls and some piping installed, but for the most part it was still a shell. We were very fortunate to have brought along three tradesmen (Liam, John and Ed) and by the end of our second day there, we’d completed most of what we’d been assigned to do, so it was great to be able to do more than expected! By the week’s end we had installed windows, insulation and drywall. We were also able to get some exterior painting done (courtesy of Albs and myself). I actually learned a lot and although the thought of me using large, professional table saws causes my mother to lose sleep, I’m no longer so afraid of them ;)
The whole time I was there I felt so fortunate for the experience. We worked hard all day and came back to good, home-cooked meals. There’s something to be said about eating and sleeping when you feel you’ve really earned it. We were tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. One night, we were treated to traditional New Orleans cuisine by a man name Henry- a local and a congregant at the church we were staying at. Henry cooked up some DELICIOUS red beans and rice and shared his Katrina story with us. Henry, his wife and his sister found themselves stranded when the storm hit, so they headed to the Hyatt (where he worked) and they put him up in a room there. It was basically a fortress- no electricity, no running water, just shelter. He told us he could hear gunshots in the Super Dome and that the city was lawless. He mentioned that ice was more precious than gold. Eventually they got out of town and once they did, his wife was in the hospital for a week. I’m not doing Henry’s story justice here. His story and the sincerity in which he told it is something I will never forget. His wife sat by his side and although she’s heard the re-telling many times, she quietly wiped away tears.
Henry was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of people are still displaced; most of them never to return home again. I mentioned earlier that Katrina kicked a whole bunch of people while they were down and I’m reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. - "It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man to pick himself up by his own bootstraps." Many residents repeatedly mentioned how grateful they were to the volunteers because much of the rebuilding is thanks in part to them. The federal and local governments were all aware of the inadequacy of the levees and once they finally did break, FEMA dropped the ball. The fact that the government that so many of us look to for protection and safety simply didn’t do its job, makes the situation that much more heartbreaking.
Unfortunately for NOLA, the question of another hurricane is “When will it happen next?”. It’d be easy to just scoff and say that these people should just up and leave, but it isn’t all that easy- this is home and where as Chicago is home to many people from many different parts of the country and world, most of New Orleans’s residents were born and bred there.
On my last day in NOLA, I was standing on my ladder in the sun and I thought that this is exactly the kind of thing we all need to be doing. I have a strong desire to see the world and when I’ve imagined myself abroad, I’ve never even considered that “seeing the world” means seeing all different aspects of it even the parts that are a mere two hour plane ride away.
Almost three years ago, New Orleans was knocked down and dragged through the mud, and it's endurance and resilience is a testament to the hope of its people. I wish I could have volunteered there longer. A week of my flailing a hammer wasn’t enough and ultimately, I left feeling as if I gained more from NOLA than NOLA gained from me. I think it's safe to say we are all pretty blessed to have taken a little bit of sweet, savory NOLA back home.